The Bush administration has gotten a dressing-down from government auditors for mimicking a common, but ethically questionable, practice of the public-relations business.
The General Accounting Office said the Department of Health and Human Services engaged in illegal propagandizing by providing TV stations with prepackaged news reports about a new White House-backed Medicare prescription drug plan.
The reports, some unedited, were aired by 40 stations in 33 markets between Jan. 22 and Feb. 12. The packages contained lead-in scripts for station anchors to read and "B-roll" tape featuring hired spokespeople posing as reporters. In one, "reporter" Karen Ryan explain how a government PSA campaign is promoting the changes while tape of the ad runs. Ryan closes by stating: "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan reporting.
Ryan narrates a second prepackaged story focusing on previous elements of the new prescription drug plan. A similar Spanish-language package is narrated by "reporter " Alberto Garcia.
HHS notified stations about the packages via email and made the materials available on CNN Newsource. In none of the reports were the narrators identified as employees of the U.S. government.
Government information is considered "propaganda" when the target audience would not be able to identify the source of information reported, GAO said. HHS defended the package as a standard PR tactic used in private industry, but GAO said that explanation didn't wash.
The government should be held to a higher standard, GAO said, because of the risk of government interference in independent news operations. GAO noted that the U.S. Information Agency and other government departments charged with promoting pro-American news internationally are forbidden from operating inside the country.
It also noted that the Radio-Television News Directors Association's code of ethics requires disclosure of all information provided by outside sources. GAO said HHS must report to Congress that the $42,750 cost to produce the packages was spent illegally.
GAO discovered the prepackaged spots while it was investigating Democrats' complaints about the PSA campaign explaining new prescription drug benefits. GAO ruled in March there was nothing wrong with the PSAs.